The Secrets of Brooklyn Bridge

“He’s handsome,” says my friend Elaine, looking at the photograph I’ve slipped from my wallet. Not much bigger than a postage stamp, the portrait rests in the palm of my hand as we sit on a bench by the swift tidal strait that is New York’s East River.

On the opposite shore, glassy-bright under a pale, shining winter sky, are the towers of Manhattan’s skyline; a stolid orange ferry sets out for Staten Island, and out in the bay Liberty lifts her torch in spite of all. We warm ourselves with coffee from the deli just off Cranberry Street, behind us in the Heights, and look back through time into the clear grey gaze that meets ours.

The photograph is of a young man with a firm jaw and a well-shaped brow; his coat is buttoned to the neck and he wears a crushed, peaked cap set with the emblem of Abraham Lincoln’s Union Army. There is, in his look, both caution and resolve. He would need both. The picture was taken in 1861 when its subject was 24 years old. During the American Civil War he would rise from private to lieutenant-colonel; he would fight at Gettysburg, Bull Run, Chancellorsville and Antietam. His name was Washington Augustus Roebling, and when he was done with the war he would give 14 years of his life to building the Brooklyn Bridge. “Let’s walk,” I say to Elaine…